Saturday, April 30, 2016

Spain tops poll on accepting Syrian refugees

This poll is part of a fascinating wider international survey titled "Identity 2016" which also found that 'Global citizenship' is increasing at the expense of nationalism. To me, this is extremely encouraging.

"On the question of whether intermarriage was a welcome development" Spain and the UK were the countries most in favour.

Read more from BBC source here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Saturday, April 16, 2016

"Brussels rebukes Spain for failing to take in refugees"

[Refugees and migrants wait in line for tea in a camp in Idomeni, on the border between Greece and Macedonia. Reuters]         

Last week on Catalan (English language) TV, I called for the European Union to hold back financing for Spain if the national government did not immediately follow up on it's previous agreement to welcome significantly greater numbers of refugees than it had done.

"Spain has only taken in 18 refugees since September 2015, when European countries pledged to help people fleeing conflict in Syria. 

In March, the Spanish government promised to speed up that rate by accepting 467 new refugees within that same month. 

But a European Commission report shows that nearly two weeks after the deadline expired, not a single one of those 467 people has arrived on Spanish soil.

Several European institutions are rebuking Spain for these disappointing numbers, and talking about "a lack of willingness" on the part of the Popular Party (PP) acting administration. Acnur, the United Nations refugee agency, joined that chorus of critical voices in Congress on Tuesday."

More from El Pais source article (in English) here.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"From across the centuries" - An article about Shakespeare for Catalonia Today magazine

One of the greatest things about Shakespeare - one of the things I love most about his writing - is his rare ability to have his characters speak for themselves but also somehow show a more universal state of mind. 
His fiction is as real as it can get despite the fact that we are reading his words or hearing them said hundreds of years after he wrote his works.
In Shakespeare's famous play Hamlet, the title character, the Prince of Denmark is depressed. His father has been murdered by an uncle and his mother has quickly remarried. Hamlet feels compelled to take revenge for his father's death but his new isolation and sadness cause him to be on the point of suicide. He says:
"I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! ...The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither."
To me this is one of the most moving of Shakespeare's passages. I first heard it performed by Richard E. Grant, playing an unemployed actor in the final scene of the superb film, "Withnail and I." Here, the character is seemingly making a balancing act in his mind, weighing up the good and bad of his species and the universe we inhabit. His judgement is a heavy one, as if mankind does not merit a place in the cosmos. 
Or is Hamlet just speaking for himself alone? That is another beauty of Shakespeare's writing. He is a poet and surely the greatest in the history of the English language. His words are open to many interpretations still (even after thousands of academics have picked them apart syllable by syllable) and this pliability gives his ideas a freshness that never dries up.
As a wordsmith and creator of English, it's also generally accepted that no-one can be compared with Shakespeare. When he couldn't find a word to do the job he wanted he simply invented a new word and many of these words live on in the language today. 
 His writing benefited from him also being an actor. Shakespeare knew how lines could be delivered and had an extraordinary ear for how their musical rhythm would be heard by audiences.
Sadly, many people's experience of The Bard (as he is often called) was having his sometimes archaic language drummed into them by secondary school teachers who knew no better than the traditional methods. I was one of these victims and didn't rediscover the glories of Shakespeare's work until well into my twenties. 
Then I found that I too had to teach his plays. This was not easy but surprisingly, I learnt that my Catalan students were much more receptive to him than those kids I'd tried to teach Shakespeare in Australia or England. Catalan students had the advantage of already being bilingual and Elizabethan-era English was just another challenge. 
 Shakespeare's timeless themes will continue to reach out across the centuries, "to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow."

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2016.] 
(The Flower Portrait above was long thought to be a contemporary painting of the Bard, but a 2004 investigation found it to be a 19th-century forgery. / Photo: ARCHIVE.)

Saturday, April 2, 2016

My latest appearance on The English Hour (El Punt Avui TV)
Last Thursday I was a guest again on Matthew Tree's round table chat show, Our Finest Hour

We talked about the Spanish government's disgraceful rejection of Catalan proposals to welcome 4,500 refugees, the most recent ranglings over who might make up the next administration in Madrid and the role of multi-lingualism in Catalunya.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"France moves towards full ban on pesticides blamed for bee losses"

"French lawmakers approved plans for a total ban on some widely used pesticides blamed for harming bees, going beyond European Union restrictions in a fierce debate that has pitched farmers and chemical firms against beekeepers and green groups.

The EU limited the use of neonicotinoid chemicals, produced by companies including Bayer CropScience and Syngenta , two years ago after research pointed to risks for bees, which play a crucial role pollinating crops.

Crop chemical makers say the research blaming neonicotinoid pesticides is not backed up by field evidence and a global plunge in bee numbers in recent years is a complex phenomenon due to multiple factors."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Noam Chomsky Joins Democracy in Europe [DiEM25]

"Distinguished American linguist, philosopher and political activist, Noam Chomsky, has [this week] officially endorsed DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement launched last month by Greece’s former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis.

“The formation of the European Union,” explained Chomsky, “was a highly encouraging step forward in world affairs, with great promise.” However, in view of the American scholar, the EU “now faces severe threats, from within, tracing in no small measure to the attack on democracy.”

Upon becoming the latest signatory of the movement’s Manifesto, Chomsky affirmed, “[DiEM25’s] Manifesto is a bold effort to reverse the damage and restore the promise, an initiative of great significance.”

Read more from source here.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

"Refugees start arriving in government says “no” to closed borders"

"Prime minister António Costa’s willingness to take as many as 10,000 refugees - instead of the 4500 established by EU quotas - is being demonstrated today as the European Council holds its emergency summit in Brussels on what is universally recognised as the 'worst refugee crisis since World War II'.

Hours before the summit got underway, 64 ‘mainly Syrians and Iraqis’ touched down at Lisbon’s military airbase (Figo Maduro) to be received by dignitaries before going on to various destinations around the country.

A number - particularly children - were so frail and ill from gruelling months of uncertainty and inhospitable conditions in Greece that they had to be immediately transported to hospital, writes Público.

Talking to journalists, Costa’s deputy Eduardo Cabrita said the latest 64 which have followed 65 Eritreans who have arrived since December are “mainly Iraqis and Syrians”, with women, children and families making up most of the numbers, plus a few single people.

Next week, more will start arriving on commercial flights, he explained.

For now, Portugal’s new arrivals will be given accommodation in 15 locations organised by social solidarity, church and refugee support organisations."

- See more at:

Saturday, March 5, 2016

"The Wind-Water Sickness" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

[Japanese "onni" (devil) mask]
How do you get sick in Japan?

According to one Japanese teacher that I once talked to, a Mr Shiroi, he caught a cold because the school that we both used to teach at was in an “unfavourable” north-east position, when compared to his house. He had been working at this school for four years, he informed me, and had got sicker much more often than at his previous school, which was in a northwest direction. This was a ‘good’ location relative to where he lives, so he rarely found himself in less than perfect health.
Mr Shiroi told me that this extraordinary superstition was called fu-sui (wind-water) and has its roots in Chinese Confucian times, having a fairly committed belief amongst about 1 in 20 people in Japan, Mr Shiroi estimates. In China, he thinks it is over 10 per cent still.

Naturally, in our conversation I offered the opinion that it is actually germs that cause diseases, but this is only the ‘direct’ cause, he maintained. From this ancient nonsense, it seems that you can predict where the harmful things are, but they will only take effect on you if you have arrived at your destination from certain directions.

I contended to him that if somebody catches AIDS for example, it is because they shared a needle or bodily fluids with an infected person. In Mr Shiroi’s view it is also because they were ignorant of the warnings that, with special insider-knowledge, can be found.

Mr Shiroi then went on to inform me that all the important variables in fact changed on the night before ‘Setsubun,’ (which was only two nights before our discussion.) You see, the turning point for which directions are favourable is midnight on this ‘real’ New Year. Setsubun (literally "sectional separation") is a timed-honoured Japenese custom that marks the beginning of spring and is based on the solar calendar, not the lunar calendar used by the western world. A man puts on an onni (demon) mask and is chased out of his own house by the rest of the family who throw beans at him yelling the Japanese equivalent of bad luck out, good luck in! It is still practised in most Japanese households, he told me.

More interesting to me though were this otherwise well-educated man’s theories about predictability of natural phenomenon. I asked him if it was not only people’s houses and workplaces that came under the influence of this “cosmic compass.” Did it affect relationships? For example, if someone who was born in the town of Uji, south of Kyoto, and they married someone from say, Kameoka to their north-west, did this mean that their bond would be a successful one?

He believed it did, explaining to me that it is actually even better to marry a partner further along the same axis line. This struck me as another absurdity, particularly when taken to its logical extension. I argued that, according to his theory here, it would have been better for him to have married a woman from the very tip of Chile in South America rather than his current wife. “Oh, but you have to balance the idea with practical concerns,” he squibbed. I asked him what his wife thought about this. He said “Well, I got married before I learnt about these ways.”

I knew that just last year he had traveled to Morocco. He had previously told me that he liked it very much but that his wife never wanted to go back there again. Now, he filled me in, that particular tip of Africa had been the ‘second best’ possible place to travel to. It had been at times very difficult to find somewhere to go outside of Japan that was relatively “safe.”

Following these principles was limiting to his options, it seemed. I told him that former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s wife Nancy had experienced similar problems with a different brand of superstition.

[This article was first published under the title "How do you get sick in Japan?" in Catalonia Today magazine, March 2016,]

Sunday, February 28, 2016

"TTIP talks press ahead with new privileges for big business"

"The 12th round of EU-US trade talks ended in Brussels [on Friday] with negotiators pressing ahead to deliver new privileges for big business, said Greenpeace. 

The start of the talks was delayed on Monday after a blockade by Greenpeace activists, who warned against a “dead end trade deal” and called for an end to the negotiations. "

Read more from source here.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Steinbeck, Scuppers and trains" - My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine

As a child, the great American author John Steinbeck was inspired by a scene with a bird in it: a stork. He cherished a toy ‘Easter looking-egg’ which he loved to peer into through a tiny hole, seeing “a lovely little farm, a kind of dream farm, and on the farmhouse chimney a stork sitting on a nest." 

Steinbeck had taken this setting to be pure fantasy but to his surprise saw the same thing in real life one day in Denmark.

My own young imagination, before I could even read, had been fired by books like Margaret Wise Brown’s ‘Scuppers The Sailor Dog’ with its superbly memorable illustrations by Garth Williams. I would always ask my mother to read me this story and one scene in particular is imprinted on my memory even still. I’m sure that it fed my unconscious with a deep desire to travel.

Brave Scuppers is asleep in a warm bunk bed in his cosy, wood-paneled ship’s cabin. The ship is tossing because I can see that the light is swinging from the roof and outside through the round porthole window the sea is choppy. Under his bed are his new shoes that he picked out from a shop, pictured on the previous page. Scuppers rejected a different pair as being ‘too fancy’ because they were curly at the toe ends.

This shop (where he also bought a ‘bushel’ of oranges) had palm trees outside and a woman in a veil walking by, seemingly in a hurry. I’d never seen either of those things before and didn’t know the word ‘exotic’ then but that’s what I was thinking in my forming child’s outlook. When I got to Morocco twenty five years later and saw the same curly shoes that Scuppers had passed over, I felt what must have been a similiar satisfying surprise as John Steinbeck had once enjoyed.

Travel has a way of also emboldening us because we are out of the realm of home’s familiar touches.

Consciously, my love affair with travelling on trains began just over two decades ago when my partner Paula and I spent over three months on different forms of them getting across Europe. As a child and young adult I’d barely been on a train before but there was something either in my ancestral memory or a different kind of spark that kindled a vague interest in a different sort of transport, aside from buses or planes. Maybe it was hearing Neil Diamond on TV when I was eight years old. I still recall him singing:

It's a beautiful noise
Goin' on ev'rywhere
Like the clickety-clack
Of a train on a track
It's got rhythm to spare

In this song too he poeticised the sounds of big city street as music to the ear and my budding brain was intrigued by this idea. Living in quiet suburbia where the high-pitched ‘ninga-ninga of summer lawn movers was the most common weekend noise, I’d never heard anything like the kind of thing in Diamond’s lyrics and his clear affection for the pulse and grind of the metropolis. It has stayed with me in the same way that thoughts on a train trip from over twenty years ago will now and then float back into memory.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, February 2016.]

Saturday, February 6, 2016

"France becomes first country to force all supermarkets to give unsold food to the needy"

"Supermarkets in France have been banned from throwing away or spoiling unsold food by law.

The stores are now required to donate unwanted food to charities and food banks.

To stop foragers, some supermarkets have poured bleach over the discarded food or storing binned food in locked warehouses."

Read more from source here.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"Spain at last welcomes back the Sephardim"

"Following new legislation, the first descendants of expelled Jews get Spanish nationality..."

Read from from source at El Pais in English here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Speaking on Borders of Belonging at the University of Barcelona

This Wednesday afternoon, along with two other writers - Gloria Montero and Inez Baranay -  I will be speaking at an international seminar titled Borders of Belonging at the University of Barcelona.

I will be focusing on gender and emotion, two themes that are explored in my non-fiction book, The Remade Parent.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Spanish link with ancient Irish human genomes

[Reconstruction of Ballynahatty Neolithic skull by Elizabeth Black. Her genes tell us she had black hair and brown eyes. Image credit: Barrie Hartwell.]
" Researchers have sequenced ancient (5,200 to 4,000 years old) Irish human genomes for the first time and found that they were very similar to Spanish and Sardinian people."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

"Lessons from Paris" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

The recent tragic terrorist murders in Paris (and sadly also elsewhere) can teach us plenty. And if we choose to not learn all that we can from these tragedies then we are as good as inviting further bloodshed and horror.

One of the biggest mistakes that I think is made around terrorism is that it is treated as something special and different from other serious violent crimes. Maybe because it comes out of the everyday (the train, a bus, a cafe, a concert) and because it’s most recent form targets no one in particular, we lose our common sense and fear that ourselves or our loved ones will be next.

It seems to me that acts of mass terrorism (just like other acts of murder) are committed by people with motive (though of course grossly perverted motives) and the means to do so on a large scale (automatic weapons and explosives, typically.) Motive and means: any attempt to deal with terrorism that does not focus on both these factors is bound to fail.

I believe that radical, extreme Islam is merely something that the Paris terrorists (amongst others) just hang their hats on. Exactly like the average North American (white male) gunman shooting up innocents at a school or an abortion clinic, what they are really fueled by is frustration that turns to resentment which then becomes great rage. Some terrorists have come from well-off backgrounds but the biggest causes of so-called ‘radicalisation’ are poverty and a need to belong, a need for identity.

When mainstream society systematically isolates migrants or people who see themselves as not being accepted by the wider majority, it is natural that resentment arises in the body and mind of those who now think of themselves as a kind of victim. If they find a focus for this bitterness - and fundamentalist religions have a slippery way of creating one - then self-isolation and a bunker/siege mentality is not far away.

In the small town where we live our teenage son has some friends whose parents are Moroccan. None of these boys were born in Morocco and they speak Catalan with our son and the other kids around. I know that some parents have told their children not to hang around with them even though they do not cause any trouble. How are these friends of my son supposed to feel? Could anyone blame them for being resentful and even angry towards the parents who insist on discrimination against them?

I am not arguing that these attitudes directly create terrorists of course. What I am saying is that it can and does contribute towards what sociologists call ‘marginalisation:’ humans pushing other humans to the edges of society. It is only logical then that these young boys will identify themselves as more Moroccan/Muslim than Catalan or Spanish because they have been rejected by parts of its more powerful, established society.

Despite all the grave social problems that run through Australia, the UK and the USA, in those parts of the planet it is standard to be both a Muslim and an Australian/American/Brit without suffering from any major confusion of who you are. Yes, there are bigots but unlike Europe there are very few ‘successful’ acts of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

In the run-down outer suburbs of Paris (the ‘banlieues’) where young men "of Arab appearance" are routinely stopped for ritual humiliation by police, I wonder if they think of themselves as French first.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2016.]

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"On Spain, Greece, Italy and our plans for a European movement to democratise the EU" – Interviewwith Yanis Varoufakis in L’Espresso

"The plan is simple: To launch, in early February, a pan-European movement with a single, radical objective: To democratise the EU! 

To form a movement that seeks to harness the energy of pro-European radical critics of Brussels and Frankfurt in order to prevent the disintegration of the EU. 

In short, to show that there is a third alternative to the calamitous ‘choice’ between: (a) those who want to return to the cocoon of the nation-state, and (b) those who accept the authoritarian, ineffective policies of the deeply anti-democratic EU institutions."

Read more here.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Immigrants and The Vote in Spain

Young people at a demonstration
With the Spanish election tomorrow these words are particularly relevant...

"An article about how the foreigners living in Spain (better than four million of us) are ignored by the politicians. It's not just that we don't have the vote (and thus, some influence), it's that the politicians are frightened about giving us any attention as it could cost them domestic votes. A quote from an immigrant association in Madrid: "This campaign has not mentioned the foreigners (4.4 million of us live in Spain). There has been nothing, neither good nor bad, said about us. We simply do not exist. Could we generate votes? Not from Immigrants. If someone speaks up for us, then Society disagrees. In our association we have already received several 'threats' and we have been left messages on the door showing that immigrants are to blame for all ills, even for the corruption of the parties."

Translated from an article in El Diario, courtesy of the highly informative Business Over Tapas.